NC hosts Japanese PM in historic visit 

More than 200 Japanese companies have now set up shop in the state and employ over 30,000 people

Chizuko Sueyoshi, leader of the Japanese Tea Practitioners of Durham, welcomes Yuko Kishida, first lady of Japan and Kristin Cooper, first lady of North Carolina, to a traditional Japanese tea gathering at Sarah P. Duke Gardens last Friday in Durham. (Jared Lazarus / Duke University)

RALEIGH — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cemented economic links and cultural amity with North Carolina on Friday, following up time in Washington, D.C., during his official U.S. visit by coming to a state that has become a key business partner for the East Asian nation. 

Kishida lunched at the governor’s mansion in Raleigh, a historic first for the head of a foreign country in the Tarheel State. Japan is North Carolina’s largest source of foreign direct investment, where more than 200 Japanese companies have now set up shop, employing over 30,000 people, according to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his office. 

“I am honored to be here in North Carolina to showcase the multilayered and strong ties between Japan and the United States,” Kishida said through a translator inside the mansion ballroom, where about 60 people dined from a menu created by award-winning N.C. chef Ashley Christensen. 

Before the visit to North Carolina, Kishida’s trip to the U.S. had been focused on global safety. He met President Joe Biden to discuss security concerns about China’s military, participated in the first trilateral summit between the U.S., Japan and the Philippines, and made the case in an address to a joint session of Congress for the U.S. to remain involved in global security. 

But Kishida, who has been Japan’s prime minister since 2021, said before his trip that he chose to stop in North Carolina to show that the Japan-U.S. partnership extends beyond Washington, according to a translation posted on his website. 

Honorary Consul for Japan in North Carolina David Robinson called the visit “incredibly successful,” noting it was “the first sitting head of state to visit the governor’s mansion ever.”  

“The last sitting head of state that visited NC State was 1954 — 70 years ago. So the fact that he came at all was historic,” said Robinson, adding that 50 members of the Japanese press accompanied the prime minister.  

“That is an unprecedented amount of media coverage for North Carolina,” said Robinson. “So that was that was an epic amount of news exposure in Japan which is now our largest source of foreign direct investment. So this rising tide is going to lift all boats.” 

Kishida visited the Randolph County town of Liberty to see the Toyota battery plant, the largest foreign direct investment project in North Carolina’s history at $14 billion. 

Robinson said North Carolina “did a fantastic job of rolling out the red carpet” for Kishida and the Japanese delegation.  

Kishida, Cooper and others traveled to the Greensboro area for Friday morning visits to a Honda Aircraft Co. production facility. 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, back left, tour the assembly building during a visit last Friday to the Honda Aircraft facility in Greensboro. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

Hours before Kishida and his wife arrived Thursday night at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a subsidiary of another Japanese company, Fujifilm, announced an additional $1.2 billion investment in its upcoming biopharmaceutical manufacturing plant and another 680 jobs. 

Chiaki Takagi, a Japanese studies lecturer at UNC Greensboro, said this week that the prime minister’s visit surprised her but that it could signal a “positive future partnership” between Japan and the U.S. and more Japanese workers coming to the state. 

“This whole thing will provide the area with opportunities to be engaged in very active cultural exchange between Japan and the U.S.,” Takagi said. 

The luncheon marked the first time a foreign head of state has visited the governor’s mansion since record-keeping began in 1891, the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said. 

“What a better way to start than with one of our closest allies and friends from the country of Japan, with whom we share so many common interests,” Cooper said at the luncheon. “So today we make history, welcoming our wonderful friends.” 

Kishida also visited NC State on Friday, meeting with students ranging from those in middle school to adults studying Japanese, and also saw the university’s Japan Center, which was established by former Gov. Jim Hunt and others in 1980 following a state trade mission to Tokyo. NC State has long, formal ties with Japan’s Nagoya University. 

Earlier Friday, Kishida’s wife, Yuko, and North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper, shared a traditional Japanese tea at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham. 

The visit was not without political intrigue: Cooper did not invite Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson — a Republican who is facing Attorney General Josh Stein for the right to succeed Cooper as governor — to the State Lunch with Kishida. A spokesperson for Robinson said the lieutenant governor “received no communication” about the prime minister’s visit. 

A.P. Dillon contributed to this report.